The cost of driving with Wi-Fi

2017 Chevrolet Malibu wifi.JPG
Sitting in the back seat of the 2017 Chevrolet Malibu, Automotive Editor Jill Ciminillo is able to easily connect to the 4G LTE hotspot and work from the road. (Sinclair Broadcast Group / Jill Ciminillo)

We are in the middle of auto show season, and all the automakers seem to be touting technology this year. From USB ports to charge your mobile devices at every seat to Wi-Fi hotspots that accommodate up to 10 devices, it seems that automakers want to feed the need for speedy data downloads.

But the thing is, not all Wi-Fi hotspots are equal, and they certainly don’t cost the same.

General Motors has been very aggressively boasting about the 4G LTE hotspot it offers across its Chevrolet, Cadillac, GMC and Buick lineups, and in fact, Chevrolet just announced that its owners used a whopping 4,220,684 gigabytes of data in 2016 – an increase of almost 200 percent over 2015.

General Motors offers 4G LTE in the majority of its vehicles, and data plans are available via AT&T. They offer both monthly and one-time purchase plans ranging from $5 for a one-time, one-day purchase of 250 megabytes to a $40 per month 10-gigabyte plan. Plus, if you are already an AT&T user, you can add your vehicle to an existing mobile share plan for $10 per month.

Coincidentally, Volvo, BMW and Audi, which also use an AT&T hotspot, have the same pricing plans.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, however, uses a Sprint 3G connection for its hotspot, and has daily, weekly or monthly payment plans priced at $9.99, $19.99 or $49.99, respectively.

Mercedes-Benz also offers a Wi-Fi hotspot in its vehicles, and they currently use Verizon as a provider. Starting with the 2017 model year forward, most of the Mercedes vehicles will utilize 4G LTE. The Wi-Fi hotspot is an upgrade purchased through Mercedes via the mbrace Entertain Package and will cost you $18 per month after a 3-month trial. It is unclear if this is an unlimited data plan or if there are upgrades after you commit to the plan.

Thankfully, most of the automakers that offer Wi-Fi hotspots give you a free trial of some sort, which is really helpful, since not all systems will work the same and speed can be location specific. For example, a system using Sprint will likely do well in Chicago, which has excellent Sprint coverage, but it might not do as well in a place like Los Angeles, which is heavily supported by AT&T and Verizon.

I’ve tested the hotspots in a Chevrolet Malibu, Chrysler Pacifica and Volvo S90, and my hands-down favorite was the 4G LTE in the Malibu. It was easy to connect and powerful enough that I stayed connected from Chicago all the way to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, working on my computer with full internet access the entire way. Both the Pacifica and S90 systems were a bit glitchy, and my husband, who is an PC/Android user, wasn’t able to connect to either system easily and eventually gave up, reverting to his own T-Mobile hotspot on his phone to connect his computer.

As the world gets more and more connected, Wi-Fi hotspots will be the next must-have accessory, and if that’s the case for your family, I recommend that you not only try the Wi-Fi hotspot before you buy the car but also take full advantage of any trial period to test the limits of data downloads and connectivity.


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